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Adverse Childhood Experiences vs. Trauma

Adverse Childhood Experiences vs. Trauma

In today’s world, it is unlikely to meet someone who does not know what trauma means or who has not experienced some kind of trauma in their life. Trauma is a commonly used term, but what does it really mean? 

Is Trauma Too Small of a Word?

If you look the word “trauma” up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it means “An injury (such as a wound);  a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; or an emotional upset.” The English language is complex; many words have multiple meanings, as we can see with the word trauma. 

To be able to correctly explain a traumatic event, one that causes emotional upset, using the word “trauma” is ambiguous to what a person means. It is too small of a word to explain, for example, physical abuse or growing up in food poverty. There are emotional and psychological effects of growing up in food poverty that reflects in adulthood, like hoarding certain kinds of foods, which is not always obviously attributed to trauma. 

Capital-T vs. Small-T

Have you ever heard someone say, “Small t trauma versus capital-T Trauma”? If you have gone through a treatment center, you may have heard that phrase from another patient, maybe even a therapist. Small t-trauma is a word that is supposed to refer to trauma that is not as big and not as psychologically harmful. It can still affect someone later in life, like being rejected. Capital T-Trauma is supposed to refer to the more intense life experiences, like emotional or physical abuse or growing up with a person with substance use disorder (SUD). Those experiences will affect someone throughout life. 

When discussing emotionally distressing experiences with others, capital T-Trauma and small t-trauma is the common distinction used in trauma-informed therapies where people delve into their past to understand what has happened to them and how it has affected them further in life. To explain the complex and different life experiences people have, trauma can be too small of a word. A better description of trauma needs to be used if a person wants to be fully understood when talking about emotional or psychological distress. 

Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences

In Child Welfare, a different word than trauma is used to explain harmful or abusive childhoods. The term adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are instead used and has been growing in popularity. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, “ACEs include all types of abuse and neglect, such as parental substance use, incarceration, and domestic violence. ACEs can also include situations that may cause trauma for a child, such as having a parent with a mental illness or being part of a family going through a divorce.” Although trauma is used in the definition, it may be hard to misunderstand what kind of trauma someone is referring to when looking at the whole definition.

By using the term ACEs, you are communicating to someone that in childhood, the crucial developmental years for your body and mind, you had experiences that harmed you either physically or psychologically. 

If you have experienced ACEs growing up, and as an older person, you sought therapy to help process your experiences and emotions, then you know that therapy usually involves a lot of talking. While talking, you are supposed to process difficult and psychologically harmful memories or experiences with the help of a therapist. Understanding the words to explain what you mean then becomes important because there is a big difference between a traumatic event, such as a house fire or car crash, that may cause anxiety around fire or fear of driving, then if you were maybe abused as a child, which can cause physical, emotional, and actual lasting changes to someone’s brain. 

Lasting Effects of Aces

Bartlett and Sacks (2019) found that researchers in the 1990s  conducted a study to understand trauma by reviewing the experiences of adults in seven categories “physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; having a mother who was treated violently; living with someone who was mentally ill; living with someone who abused alcohol or drugs, and incarceration of a member of the household.” Due to this study, researchers found that the more ACEs an individual experiences, the worse their physical and mental health becomes. Compared to their peers who experienced less or no ACEs, their physical and mental health was worse. 

People who experienced more ACEs as a child have been found to have high heart problems, extremely high rates of depression, and engage in risky behavior like substance abuse or unprotected sex. There are even some researchers who think there is a correlation between ACEs and diabetes, asthma, and cancer. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences vs. Trauma

Trauma is a multi-dimensional experience that causes an array of reactions and different physical effects, either in the long term or short term. ACEs, as we discussed, cover adverse or harmful experiences in seven categories as mentioned above. The word trauma does not cover the seven specific categories of ACEs. When we talk about the trauma of a car crash, it is vague and doesn’t give information about the lasting effects of the event. 

ACEs then become the better word to explain the harmful experiences that lead to the development of disorders in adulthood, like PTSD, personality disorders, or major depressive disorder.

Language Is Important

The words we use have power in their meanings. If you use ACEs to explain adverse experiences throughout childhood, you may be more likely to be understood. When you are learning to live with a disorder, being understood by others, like your support people, is extremely important. It’s important to understand the root cause of our actions to help change our behavior. It could be time to reach out to a professional to discuss your childhood experiences to understand how they have and are affecting you today. 

Do you find yourself reflecting on your childhood experiences? Are your childhood memories full of sad and confusing things? At Acera Health, we have a team of supportive clinicians who are here to help you discover the root of your behavior and thoughts. Many people struggle with the effects of ACEs in adulthood. Though your journey is unique, you are not alone in your healing despite your hurt. Our team is waiting to help you reach your goals for treatment and to plan for a well-balanced, healthy life. Contact us today at (949) 647-4090 to start healing from ACEs. We are excited to start this journey with you and help despite the negatives you experienced.


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